Researcher pursues Ph.D. in Facebook

Staff writerAugust 15, 2010 

— Considering the rapid rise in popularity of online social networking over the past few years, it shouldn't be surprising that the nation's academics are all over it - nor that a UNC-Chapel Hill grad student is about to earn a Ph.D. in Facebook.

Well, it'll actually be a degree in library and information sciences. But Fred Stutzman's research has made him one of the top experts in the country on the subject.

His dissertation, tentatively titled "Network Information Behavior During Life Transitions," explores the role that online social networking plays in people's lives.

"Fred was one of the first people working on Facebook data anywhere," says Paul Jones, who works with Stutzman in his capacity as director of UNC's online ibiblio.org archive. "There are a lot of people across the country working on it now, doing serious scholarly work with a theoretical approach. Fred knows them all."

Facebook has taken root deeper than any other social-networking platform, with a half-billion users worldwide. Yet it has only been around since 2004, when it started at Harvard University as "The Face Book," years after similar sites such as Friendster and MySpace.

While Stutzman has been on Facebook since 2005, he's not that active a user nowadays - mostly because his work doesn't leave much time for it. But he was an early adopter of online social networking, dialing into bulletin boards on a modem while growing up in New York state.

Stutzman had a light bulb moment when he read Duncan Watts' 2003 book "Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age" and realized that social networking was worth studying. So he began researching how people use social media at transitional moments, focused on who was at hand: students making their way into college, from their initial status-update declaration about where they're going to finding groups to join and activities to do (academic and otherwise).

"Twenty years ago, when you went off to college or moved to a new town, you had to keep in touch over the phone or with letters," Stutzman says. "There wasn't this constant, vibrant network of people online, and there's so much you can do with that. People talk about Facebook as something that's faddish or a waste of time. But it can be profoundly beneficial."

People like us

Stutzman likens Facebook to "word-of-mouth on steroids." The way people use it to build peer networks isn't all that different from joining a club or fraternity in search of others with common interests.

"It's homophily: the tendency to be attracted to people who are like us in terms of income, class status, ethnicity, race," Stutzman says. "Whether with Facebook or fraternities, you can ask how good it is to hang out with people pre-selected to be just like you. But the fact is we do it, no two ways around it."

Unless you were rooming with someone from back home, finding a college roommate used to be a fairly random process. But, as with so many aspects of campus life nowadays, today Facebook is at the center of the process with a function called "roommate finder."

"'Roommate finder' has 40 or 50 very personal, in-depth questions of the sort a university could never get away with asking," Stutzman says. "Questions like, how long do you party? Do you smoke pot? What's your sexual orientation? Who are you interested in? It pushes some boundaries, but I didn't talk to one person who found a roommate through Facebook who hadn't had a positive experience."

"Facebook has really become second nature for everyone," says UNC sophomore Noah Katz, who is among the students Stutzman surveyed for his research. "It's difficult to imagine life without it. And with cell phones, it's with you 24-7. Once you have your hooks in it, you're connected forever."

Stutzman's dissertation will include an overview of Facebook's networks, statistical analysis based on surveys and a series of interviews about user experiences. He is still crunching numbers, so figures are still to come on statistics such as Facebook's impact on grade-point average.

Stutzman is on track to graduate in December, and he's guessing his dissertation will come in at just under 350 pages. Perhaps it will attract as much attention as a couple of whimsical programs he put together. There's Anti-Social ( anti-social.cc), which blocks Facebook, Twitter and other social-networking sites from your computer; and Freedom ( macfreedom.com), which turns off your Internet connection altogether for up to eight hours.

Then turn it off

People who find the Internet distracts them from their work have applauded both innovations. Raved "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me" radio host Peter Sagal about Freedom: "Best. Software. Ever." Stutzman says he also knows of at least one book coming out that thanks Freedom in the acknowledgements.

"It started out as a lark, but it's serious in intent even though I certainly can't claim ownership of the idea of turning off the Internet," Stutzman says. "But I knew it would be useful to me.

"I used to work in a coffee shop with no Internet, and I loved it. You could focus on reading or writing, just being away from it. Then the place next door got Wi-Fi, which encroached on the place, and the whole vibe changed. If you can never escape it, we need to think of some way to get away and focus."

david.menconi@newsobserver.com or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat or 919-829-4759

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